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Alan Gross released amid major U.S.-Cuba reforms

WASHINGTON (JTA) – The Obama administration announced the release of Alan Gross amidst sweeping changes in Cuba-U.S. ties, including a return to full diplomatic relations.

Gross, a Jewish American contractor, was released Wednesday morning and is flying to Washington with his wife, Judy, where he will be met by U.S. lawmakers who advocated for his release.

Separately from Gross release, the United States and Cuba are exchanging the three members of the “Cuban Five” Florida-based spy ring who were still in prison, and a spy for the United States who had been incarcerated for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret.

Obama administration officials, speaking on background, insisted that Gross was not part f the exchange; in fact, Gross’s imprisonment held up changes to the U.S. Cuba relationship Obama had intended on initiating years ago, they said.

“We believe that Alan was wrongfully imprisoned and overjoyed that Alan will be reunited with his family in this holiday season of Chanukah,” a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters.

The call outlined sweeping changes, including full diplomatic relations at the embassy level and a loosening of trade and travel restrictions. Republicans who have opposed easing the Cuba embargo immediately blasted the deal. Sen. Narco Rubio (R-Fla.), himself born to Cuban parents, told Fox News Network that President Obama was “the worst negotiator since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the history of this country.”

Jewish groups welcomed the deal, however, and noted the political difficulties it must have created for the Obama administration.

“We know the decision to release the Cuban three was not an easy one,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement. “We appreciate the efforts of President Obama and Vice President Biden in bringing this about.”

Gross was arrested in 2009 after setting up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He recently marked the completion of his fifth year in prison.

Gross 65, of Potomac, Md., reportedly is in ill health and has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration and has suffered from painful arthritis.

The senior administration official who spoke to reporters said the Vatican played a key role in negotiating the deal, in part through Pope Francis’ pleas to Cuba to release Gross as a humanitarian gesture.

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